Fixing It

The Environment

Refocusing on the environmental crisis.

With President Bush’s approval rating hovering in the 30s, just about everyone has an opinion on what George W. has done wrong in the past seven years. But not everyone can explain what the next president must do to fix it. So we’ve called in some experts to tell us. Fixing It is a 10-part series to be published over the course of the week by some of our favorite writers, offering detailed policy prescriptions for the next president, whoever that may be, on how to quickly undo some of the damage that’s been wrought. One of our contributors wryly describes the series as “News You Can Use. If You Happen To Be President.” Read the other entries here.

President Bush’s environmental policies may be alarming, but they are nevertheless worthy of study. This administration has used every last hammer, wrench, and saw in the executive toolbox to pursue its ideas about how we should use energy, land, water, and other elements of nature. And so when the next president comes into office, he or she will similarly need to deftly deploy every trick of agency rule-making, executive order, enforcement of existing laws, and cooperation with Congress to reverse the damage done by the Bush administration and to usher in a new order.

Climate change. This is the green elephant in the living room. The Bush administration squandered eight crucial years by stalling and blocking any concerted national action to slow global warming. Candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and, to a lesser extent, John McCain all favor strong federal climate legislation. If none of the current climate change bills (for a roundup, click here) gets passed this year, the new president must immediately propose a new law to slash greenhouse-gas emissions in the first State of the Union address and make its passage a first-year priority. The fate of the planet—no exaggeration—potentially depends on the United States moving quickly from climate laggard to climate leader.

The new president should also use his or her executive powers to shift national policy—no need to wait for Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court ruledlast year that the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. The EPA has done little since then, and a new president can direct the agency to start writing rules to that effect immediately. Likewise, a new administration can get out of the way of the various states that have taken climate change policy into their own hands. Where the Bush administration blockedCalifornia’s request to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, a new president can embrace California’s initiative and encourage the other states seeking to experiment with environmental regulation in their own backyards.

On his or her own, a new president can also spur international action to fight global warming. Appointing a high-profile climate czar—Al Gore might be available and willing—could jump-start international climate treaty negotiations. Heck, maybe the new president can even show up occasionally, too. Back at home, a new high-level interagency climate office could begin to coordinate the economic, security, and environmental dimensions of the climate crisis, which will be with us for generations.

Climate is big, but the new president has other work to do, too. Over the past eight years, the Bush administration has systematically dismantled environmental protections by easing enforcement, reinterpreting policies, and blocking the imposition of stricter standards. A new administration should use the same executive powers to reverse course. Here are some representative messes the new president can clean up using executive authority:

• New source review. Changes to this program with a snoozer of a name reveal the Bush administration at its most enterprising. New source review is the government’s means of propelling the cleanup of aged power plants and industrial facilities. In the late 1990s, according to this great overview by Bruce Barcott in the New York Times Magazine, the power companies were on the verge of being forced into making widespread improvements to their emissions controls, changes that would have cut dangerous sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution. Then the Bush Department of Energy came along and spearheaded the charge to gut new source review, steamrolling Christine Todd Whitman, then-head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the agency’s director of enforcement, Eric Schaeffer, who resigned over the controversy. The new Bush administration rules allowed the utility companies to wriggle out of their fix: They got 10 years’ reprieve for installing any new pollution-control equipment, and they could make significant changes to their plants and still claim they were doing “routine maintenance,” thereby avoiding expensive pollution control upgrades. The next president should announce on his or her first day in office that it’s time to reconsider these rules and to come up with standards that will hold power companies accountable for the muck they spew into the air.

Ozone standard. Just two weeks ago, the administration announced that because of the president’s “last minute intervention,” as the Washington Post put it, the EPA would weaken the agency’s new ozone limits. After setting a tighter standard for long-term exposure of forests and crops to ozone than for short-term human exposure, the EPA, under pressure from the Office of Management and Budget and the White House, scrapped the separate long-term standard. The proposed limits were already more lax than those recommended by the EPA’s scientific advisers. The new president should reverse this order—and others like it—by following the recommendations of scientists mandated by law to set scientifically based standards that protect human health and ecosystems and agricultural crops.

More power to the White House. Here’s another technical rule change with broad implications, ripe for reconsideration. Last year, the White House increased its sway over government agencies by requiring each agency to select a political appointee to oversee new rule-making and the guidance provided to regulated industries. The new president should scrap this order outright. While analyzing the costs and benefits is essential to efficient regulation, the Bush change undermines agency professionals and leaves regulatory initiatives to the political whims of the White House.

The Bureau of Land Management.Under Bush, the Bureau of Land Management has opened large swaths of land in states like Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and Oregon to oil and gas drilling, often ignoring scientists’ concerns about the effects on wildlife habitat. In the Pinedale, Wyo., field office, an internal review leaked in 2006 stated that there was often “no evaluation, analysis or compiling” of all the data demonstrating the consequences of such drilling on the surrounding land and water. The new president should restore the safeguards in the process for granting new oil and drilling leases, so development doesn’t needlessly trash the patches of landscape that still look like the Old West.

• Public science. Politicians often try to control the release of information, but the Bush administration has truly taken meddling with the findings of government scientists to an entirely new level. From sex education to mercury contamination and climate projections, the administration has blocked, altered, and suppressed crucial data and conclusions it doesn’t like. The next president needs to give scientific expertise the respect it deserves by reporting results honestly and supporting work that’s rigorous even when it’s not expedient. Or profitable. Whether or not that helps halt global warming or preserve the landscape, it’s a change worth making.